Two politicians pit witty intellect and scrappy challenges against each other in Camelot Theatre's production of Gore Vidal's “The Best Man.” Photo courtesy of Steve Sutfin - Photo courtesy of Steve Sutfin

A race for the presidency

Playwright Gore Vidal's "The Best Man" chronicles a political convention in 1960, pitting an old-guard, witty intellectual against a scrappy, crafty, populist challenger for their party's presidential nomination — both of them vying for the support of an ex-president.

The play first opened on Broadway in March 1960, in the middle of the campaigns of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. The play was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning best play. It was revived on Broadway in 2000 and again this year. The newest revival, which closed in September, was nominated for two 2012 Tony Awards.

"The Best Man" previews at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3, with a benefit performance for Community Works. Tickets cost $22. Another preview is at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4. Tickets cost $10. It opens Friday, Oct. 5, and runs through Sunday, Oct. 28. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, at 2 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets for regular performances cost $22, $20 for seniors and students. Reserved seating is available for an additional $2 per ticket. A pay-what-you-can performance is set for Wednesday, Oct. 10.

As recently as 1960, candidates for the major political parties actually were chosen at conventions. For all the hoopla on the floor — signs, balloons, spontaneous demonstrations by state delegations — the parties' candidates were chosen by back-room deals, trading influence and legislative support.

Oregon's reform by initiative in the early part of the 20th century that had rank-and-file party members choose candidates at the polls was an anomaly. Today's nationwide and statewide presidential primaries and caucuses grew out of that system in an effort to make the process more democratic.

With "The Best Man," Vidal captured the essence of the last of the old political campaigns, on the edge of the era of television's influence and nationally pandering populism.

Camelot's production is directed by Roy Von Rains Jr., who played the ruthless Willie Stark in Camelot's "All the King's Men" earlier this season.

Von Rains says when he first read the play, he saw it as a chess match. He says that although he usually doesn't watch movie adaptations of plays he is doing, this time he looked at the film version of "The Best Man," starring Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson.

"I think the film was a bit static," Von Rains says. "With this production, I wanted to capture the pure energy of those conventions, with their breathless pacing. I wanted to capture the feel of where this country was politically in the early '60s.

"Most of all, I wanted to capture how important television was in 1960 for the first time, even though Gore Vidal's play predated television's impact."

Von Rains is thrilled with his "wonderful veteran cast" for Camelot's production. Don Matthews plays William Russell, an ex-secretary of state. Von Rains describes the character as "a Clintonian figure, a savvy politician."

David Dials, who has performed widely in local theater including Oregon Shakespeare Festival, plays Sen. Joseph Cantwell, the younger challenger. Grant Shepherd plays the ex-President Arthur Hockstader, whose endorsement both men seek.

Renée Hewitt plays Alice Russell, wife to one candidate, and Presila Quinby plays Mabel Cantwell, wife of the upstart. Shirley Patton plays Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, a party operative.

Rains also is production manager and created the set design along with Don Zastoupil. Video projections are by Brian O'Connor, lighting is by Andrew Trent and costumes are by Mindy Holden.

Tickets are available at www.camelottheatre.org or by calling 541-535-5250.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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